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City commission may revisit solar farm location after public comments from Archer residents

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

During general public comment at the March 4 Gainesville City Commission meeting, eight people called in to ask the commission to revisit the plan to site a solar array in Archer. The first caller said Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) could have put the solar panels on their own land at Deerhaven “but instead elected to stick it way out to adjoin a black community in Archer.” Several callers specifically asked Commissioners Gail Johnson and Gigi Simmons, who are both running for re-election, to state where they stand on the issue. 

Geraldine McMillan said she owns property near the site. “The City of Gainesville and GRU constantly talk about systematic racism, inequality, inequitable development, discrimination, and their [equity] toolkit…. Dumping this project in Archer perpetuates systematic racism.” 

Another caller, Ms. Cleveland, said she believed the zoning exception would destroy the property value of neighbors’ homes: “I seriously doubt anyone sitting on the commission would want this project in their backyard.”

Also during public comment, Nathan Skop brought attention to a contract that was on the consent agenda. The contract is part of GRU’s implementation of Advanced Metering Infrastructure, or AMI, which was approved at the last city commission meeting. Skop said that AMI will lead to time-of-use (TOU) metering, in which different rates are charged at different times. Skop said TOU will disproportionately affect poor people and minorities. Ray Washington was trying to speak about the same issue on February 4 when his mask fell, he refused to pull it up, Mayor Lauren Poe gaveled the meeting into recess, and Washington was arrested for trespassing. 

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Following general public comment, Poe asked GRU General Manager Ed Bielarski to “add some clarity” to the process of siting the solar farm. Poe pointed out that the only decision the city commission has made was to rank the proposals for a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) to buy the power from the solar array. 

Bielarski said GRU’s engineers have worked with Origis, the company that won the PPA, to find the most appropriate location for the solar array. Bielarski said much of the Deerhaven site is a wildlife refuge and also wetlands: “to have that contiguous area supporting solar arrays would be very problematic and challenging.” He also said that the power lines in the Deerhaven area couldn’t support the additional power and that they would probably need to build a second line around the east side of town at a cost of $25-$30 million if they added a solar array at Deerhaven.

Origis is currently asking the Alachua County Commission for a zoning exception to site the array in Archer. Simmons asked Bielarski how the site was chosen, and he said the site in Archer “was determined to be the most feasible and least costly.” Simmons asked staff to give her information about other sites that were considered, how the Archer site was selected, and what type of outreach was done to nearby residents. 

Johnson said she had some meetings with residents set up the next day (Friday) and a meeting scheduled with Bielarski. 

Poe added, “When we pursue our renewable energy goals, it’s to benefit everybody. We know that our low-income neighbors, our black and brown neighbors, are much more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and that is one of the reasons that we have our goals. At the same time, we don’t want to pursue those goals at the exclusion of making sure that people are supportive and accepting of the steps it will take to get there. So it’s clear that we need to continue to have a discussion with the neighbors most directly impacted by the potential siting of this.”

Poe asked Bielarski to talk to Origis about alternative sites: “At some point, I’m sure that most of Deerhaven that is developable will have solar on it. As will much of our rooftops and other areas…” Poe then moved to the next item on the agenda.

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